Edmund Burke and American Conservatism

By James Kwak

It has become a truism that modern American conservatism is revolutionary in the sense that it seeks to overturn the established order rather than to preserve it. “Reagan Revolution,” “Tea Party”—the very names for the movement announce that is about more than defending the status quo. In the conservative worldview, America (or “Washington,” or the “mainstream media,” or some other powerful stratum) is dominated by a liberal-intellectual-academic-bureaucratic-socialist-internationalist (pick two or more) elite that must be overthrown. So in at least a mythical sense, conservatism is about restoration, which is something very different from “conserving” what exists today.

When did this happen? According to one view of the world, to which I have been partial in the past, there was once an ideology called conservatism that really was conservative in the narrow sense: that is, it counseled maintaining existing institutions on the grounds that radical change was dangerous. The Rights of Man and the Citizen may be great, but soon enough you have the Committee of Public Safety and the guillotine. On this reading of history, conservatism became radical sometime after World War Two, when it gave up accommodation with the New Deal in favor of rolling the whole thing back, ideally all the way through the Sixteenth Amendment.

In The Reactionary Mind,* however, Corey Robin has a different take: conservatism, all the way back to Edmund Burke, has always been about counterrevolution, motivated by the success of left-wing radicals and consciously copying their tactics in an attempt to seize power back from them. Conservative thinkers were always conscious of the nature of modern politics, which required mobilization of the masses long before Nixon’s silent majority or contemporary Tea Party populism. The challenge is “to make privilege popular, to transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses” (p. 43). And the way to do that is to strengthen and defend privilege and hierarchy within all the sub-units of society (master over slave, husband over wife, employer over worker).

Now, the conservative movement in America is what it is; whether Edmund Burke would have blessed it or not is not going to change the number of signatories to the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. But Robin’s book should make people skeptical of the occasional claim that there is some “good conservatism” represented by, say, George Will, and some “bad conservatism” represented by, say, Sarah Palin. (I would have said Rick Perry, but these days it seems poor Palin can use all the media mentions she can get, since even Chris Christie is out-trending her.)

Robin also highlights the importance of victimhood in conservatism, going back to Edmund Burke’s tears for Marie Antoinette. To restore something, you have to have lost something in the first place. In the 1970s, it was the idea that business was being beaten up by labor that finally got the business community to organize behind the Republican Party (see Hacker and Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics; Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands); without that money, conservatism would still be about as powerful as it was in 1964. The idea that ordinary Americans are being trampled on by the liberal-bureaucratic elite, which is so central to the fundraising strategies of the NRA and other lobbying groups, is part and parcel of the whole ideology, not a clever idea thought up by Wayne LaPierre.

Of course, you can always get into an argument about which specific positions can lay claim to the word “conservative” and which can’t. To the extent that you feel bound by intellectual history, then I think Robin has a strong argument. To the extent that words are what you make them, I guess everyone has equal claim to the word.

For more, see Robin’s guest post at Rortybomb.

* I got a pre-publication copy free from the publisher. I also went to high school with Corey, but haven’t seen him in a couple of decades.

39 thoughts on “Edmund Burke and American Conservatism

  1. High brow discussions on intellectual history and political philosophy are great and all, but who here seriously thinks that someone like Rick Perry even knows who Edmund Burke was?

  2. It doesn’t seem that long ago that christian broadcasters frequently complained that they weren’t permitted to get their message out–even though they had their own broadcast networks in addition to programming on the commercial networks. If you listen to shortwave, you’ll soon find that it’s difficult to hear anything other than christian broadcasting. If, again on the shortwave bands, you find silence where a station should be, it’s likely to be a christian station jamming a message they don’t like.

    Yup. There does seem to be a sense of victimhood–ironic, of course.

  3. Conservatives are all about promoting victimhood, it defines their *rebellion*, focuses their psychic object to an exquisite cathexis-point, and moreover, enlists poor, white, uneducated saps. The Big Tent of Lee Atwater never materialized, but it is a catchy-phrase, not unlike “a thousand points of light”.

    Anyway, I don’t think Mr. Kwak is being insipid here, in the slightest. It’s indeed a *counter-revolution*, based on demonization of “straw-figures”, with the end point a giant sucking noise, that net wealth transfer from labor to capital. You’re a sucker to believe otherwise, just saying.

    I try, I do, but I can’t think of a single achievement of this “movement”, apart from making a whole lot of dumb people raving lunatics, and allowing them a false sense of inclusion into something that wants nothing to do with them.

    And the worst part, so many of the high priests of this *movement* believe sending OTHER peoples’ children to fight and die in far-off places is fine, as long as their own children are safe at Harvard, and eating a burger at Bartley’s on Friday evening.

  4. Woefully bad? It is a summary of a few political philosophers and authors who have posited trends in conservative movements. What do you want out of 6 paragraphs?

  5. No, I think this misdiagnoses the current crop of “conservatives.” They are not conservatives in any Burkean sense. They are not counterrevolutionaries. They are just straight up revolutionaries.

    Some of them may think their political philosophy harkens back to some historical moment, but it does not. There is no time when the markets were perfectly free, Christianity was the law of the land, and so on. There may have been times when each of these were true, but never simultaneously. And it’s not like liberal revolutions don’t have utopian past ideas from time to time.

    What so many people are missing is that today’s Democrats in America are for the established order. They are for the limited welfare state. They are for internationalism. They are for technocratic “best and brightest” solutions, and, well solutions at all. This is not the picture we get of liberals as dirty hippie socialist pacifists. But what Democrat was a socialist pacifist? Market-based healthcare Afghanistan-surging Obama? Serbia-bombing “end of welfare as we know it” Clinton?

    Today’s conservatives want to eliminate this order. They want no welfare state, not even FEMA. They want the states to govern (they claim) and I’m sure if the states ever recover all of their alleged “rights” then they will work very hard from the states taxing, making abortions legal, or fixing global warming. But they definitely want a revolution in the federal government.

    Just because they can’t read the 14th Amendment and don’t understand the Constitution as anything other than a biblodaltrous idol doesn’t mean they are counterrevolutionary.

  6. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,901037,00.html

    “Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all—the policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”

    Only one American politician could have said it: Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, who committed that memorable malapropism while defending police misconduct during last year’s [1968] Democratic Convention.

    Political Notes: Chairman Daley’s Maxims
    Friday, July 18, 1969

    The Conservative voice has never been clearer or more honest.

  7. Yes, Bruce, conservative Mayor Daley was a piece of work, the prime mover behind the police thuggery that marred the convention in the summer of 1968….still have that black-and-white mental image of goons accosting Dan Rather inside the convention hall, and Walter Cronkite telling CBS: “keep the CAMERAS on those THUGS”!

    Here, again, more proof of the emptiness of right wing ideology, and the harm its’ done to America over the decades….after all, the right wing…..got their war in Vietnam, using the stooge LBJ.

    But here are two of the quotes I really liked from your link, Bruce:

    On false accusations: “That isn’t even true enough to answer.” (1960) “I resent the insinuendos.” (1965)

    The “insinuendos” almost rise to the level of certain Bushisms….but it is hard to surpass old George in his butchering of language, and thought.

  8. James — there’s one prominent “conservative in the narrow sense” on the national scene today: Barack Obama. Throughout, his approach has been to “maintain existing institutions” while seeking to reform them in a way that allows them to continue. That was his approach to health care reform (he said you wouldn’t choose our current system of private insurance if you were starting from scratch, but it’s the system we’ve got so we’ve got to work with it), and it was his approach to banking reform (in practice, the approach has been to restore the existing financial industry in its existing lines of business, while making incremental adjustments to moderate the risk posed by those lines of business).

    The so-called conservatives in the Tea Party and Republican Party, however, are radicals – revolutionaries in some cases.

  9. The “cognitive map” for political terms are subject to anachronistic re-interpretations both for intentional and manipulative purposes as well as for indoctrinated and enculturated / acculturated socio-political rationalizations of some polarized order. Nature can be brutish when it fits certain purposes or idealistic / Idyllic. Natural law and positive law are dichotomized or harmonized to suit the times. Over time, it will oscillate in meanings to game the system through the language and the usurping of terms for unintended purposes (false flagging). The radical becomes a reactionary under a context or pretext of positions that are coded into the social consciousness via the dialogue (or presently…the “narrative”).

    Conservative and revolutionary are somewhat contradictions in terms literally. To create a fog or mist of “myth” to frame it as “restorative” is a trick of timing and position. The question is always precisely what power / order is being “restored” or fortified. In contemporary context it would be wise to recognize that the political class reactionaries against the decentralization of power and privilege have routinely usurped jargon language and “brand” templates to appeal to passions and rally the crowds. The utilization of mass marketing techniques from the business sectors (deriving as much from the business sector scavenging social and psychological theories that can be converted to utilitarian purpose), has long since become big business in the political circus of mass media manipulations. The appeal to a nomenclature that presumes a mass uprising has a good deal of pulling power among middle classes caught in the middle. Like the Marshall plan of foreign design, the wealth club knows that the middle class is the key to stability. If the middle class is going to join a “revolution” out of desperation and frustration, better to mark the pathway of that discontent with a false flag of misdirection. This has been the language of the day. In fact, a new “radical” narrative is out there right now that says that revolution always starts from the bottom. Oh really?
    Nothing can be further from the truth. No revolution in history has ever succeeded unless the middle class revolted and lead the lower classes to a promised land (unkept for the most part). The idea that the lower class or the bottom leads a revolution only serves to alienate the middle class and aligns them by default and proxy to the hands of the upper tiers of power elites (presumably abusing their power).

    So where does that leave us in today’s rainbow realities and arab spring uprisings? I would venture to say that your inadvertent reference to “roll back” is more on track. Today the class structure that existed between divine rights of kings and a merchant middle class is shifted and the so-called libertarians are often the royal pain in the arses and make claim to a conformity with conservativism as a reinforcement strategy. In most third world countries these would be the reactionary movements of power attempting to hold on to that power by any and all means. These are comparatively the “absolutists” of dogmatic intolerance that preach freedom and liberty but practice repression and class superiority. These false “libertarians” appeal to the 13 colonies and its tapestry of kindergarden history themes to rally around the flag as a false fronted americanism. Appeals to patriotism is conservative and radicals or activists need not apply. It is roll back and containment; NSC68 writ domestic as economic warfare against the “relativists” who are shackled into market individuation by the authoritative “individualists” of the core “conservative” fundamentalist who make claim to some pretext of “institutional right” to private sovereignty.

    This is not revolution. This is the mentality of power structure conditioned by cold war perspectives against “egalitarian” threats to their dominion and political estates. This is counter-insurgency against a perceived insurgency of nameless dead peasants, worthless voices and useless mouths. These are the self appointed masters who see everyone outside of their reservation of privilege as expendable nobodies.
    Conservatism in this context is nothing more than an exclusive self preservation that will adopt any changes that sustains the social, economic and political power of that position.

  10. “…Conservatism in this context is nothing more than an exclusive self preservation that will adopt any changes that sustains the social, economic and political power of that position.”

    And that includes the destruction of the middle class…just as the Marshall plan was succeeded by the complete bankrupting of the aggregate while selectively rewarding a ruling class of totalitarian suppression in its place.

    …but, of course, it can’t happen here….

    American exceptionalism now inverted to a total dismissal of deep history and the human abuse of human beings so entrenched in that history !

  11. The rank and file Tea Party members may feel that they are a grass-roots revolutionary organization, but if they were really threatening existing institutions and power, in general, why are their members never arrested or subjected to police brutality? The people who genuinely threaten the status quo, enough to provoke aggressive suppression of supposedly guaranteed constitutional rights, are progressives — the Occupy Wall Street folks, advocates of single-payer health care, environmentalists, anti-war activists …

  12. This is a real dog’s dinner of a political commentary. I think Mr. Kwak is approaching the Peter Principle.

  13. @Anonymous
    Left, Right, and Center: Teaching about Conservatism


    Who let the dogs out?


    At the heart of every conservative is an anarchist seeking membership and collaborative reinforcement in rank and file acceptance.
    check the hall of fame in the “intellectual” history of conservatism here:

    The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945
    GEORGE H. NASH (Author)

  14. The High Priest of contemporary conservatism: architect of crisis management and the shock doctrine:

    Foreign Economic Aid: Means and Objectives (published in Yale Review, Summer 1958)
    Author: Milton Friedman

    summary review:
    “Victors in war have traditionally imposed repreations on the vanquished. The United States was the first power in history to change this accepted practice. United States assistance programs began after World War II, the greatest being the Marshall plan for Western Europe (1947-1951), Foriegn aid thereafter became big geopolitical business, and a new branch of economics sprang up: development economics. In this essay Friedman argued that foreign economic aid would retard economic development and promote socialism, not democracy. Economic aid should be abolished, Friedman advised. Foreign economic aid, he said, will not contribute “to rapid economic development along desirable lines.” Foreign assistance is more likely to retard improvement in the well-being of the masses, while strengthening the government sector and undermining democracy and freedom.”

    compare this to what is happening internally and domestically right here and now: Then tell me that contemporary conservatism and its neoconservative derivative is not simply an extension of Friedman’s paranoid formula against a social economy of interdependence.

  15. Dude, the so called “conservatives” are nothing more than “internationalist” “globalist” “totalitarian”. Literally.

    Nothing revolutionary about them. All movements from Reagan to the “Tea Party” were from international finance of some variety. The Li’s are actually the main financiers of the “Tea Party”. The Koch’s only handle the money. Hence, they represent international finance to its nigh in wanting to control the rule of law. The destruction of the US economy is what they want, why the rich capital owners money is revalued through the roof while we are told to starve and die. Others like the Bushes want to do things differently, though in the end, it comes down to the same ending storyline.

    Amazing the political left doesn’t get it. Eventually somebody will break off from it and finally lay the word of national socialism and american restoration. That my friend would be a revolution and true national uprising. It would also anger the political left to no end. Every idea from the anti-New Deal clique or the Nelson Rockafeller handled “Birchers” were from the international. To fight for America requires a love of homeland that the political left doesn’t have. Basically you are mad because they are more treasonous and hateful of America than you are. Just try a little harder.

  16. @ Bruce, the household here is completely well-stocked in toilet tissue…..LOL.

    Dog’s dinner, @ Anonymous? This is a blog, not a site for doctoral dissertations.

  17. Let me challenge the early posts that disagree with the relevance of Prof, Kwak’s posting. Increasingly I see a nihilisitc aspect to the Tea Party behavior in Congress. This has contributed to the economic uncertainties that have bedeviled the markets from which we have all been suffering. The fight over the debt ceiling deflated what optimism we had, and the continuing threats to shut down the government on the notion that these radicals are white knights protecting us from ourselves relies on the fantasy that if we reduce government to near nothing a new and vital economy will emerge. We see instead not shining knights but ideological thugs who refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of other positions socially and politically.

    Bruce’s posts are clearly an effort to reveal the underlying structures that the Tea Party seeks to empower; however, Stephanie’s post raises the critical question: why is the enforcement authority of government brought against the left and not the right?

    The mantle “conservative” is valuable in that it confers on its wearer a legitimacy as an upholder of traditional values and the role as mediator between that tradition and the forces of change. It fits within our own national narrative when Adams declared the American Revolution conservative to distinguish it from the excesses of the French Revolution. However, there is an historical argument (made by Gordon Wood) that the American revolution was indeed radical in its subverting of traditional, European aristocratic society.

    To address Prof Kwak’s question, the Tea Party is counter-revolutionary in that it is seeking to overturn the underlying egalitarian trends in American culture. Tax policy and the lack of financial regulation have allowed significant bad behavior on the part of major financial actors in the economy. Yes, regulation is an economic drag, but it results in a more stable system in which individuals can act with greater trust. It preserves, in the most conservative sense, a degree of equity in society. Here perhaps, we see how counter-revolutionary the Tea Party is (and I suspect this accords with what Bruce wrote) that they seek to undermine the kind of rule of law that has led to a sustainable democracy.

  18. “France differs essentially from all those Governments which are formed without system, which exist by habit, and which are confused with the multitude, and with the complexity of their pursuits. What now stands as Government in France is struck out at a heat. The design is wicked, immoral, impious, oppressive; but it is spirited and daring: it is systematick; it is simple in it’s principle; it has unity an consistency in perfection. In that country entirely to cut off a branch of commerce, to extinguish a manufacture, to destroy the circulation of money, to violate credit, to suspend the course of agriculture, even to burn a city, or to lay waste a province of their own, does not cost them a[131] moment’s anxiety. To them, the will, the wish, the want, the liberty, the toil, the blood of individuals is as nothing. Individuality is left out of their scheme of Government. The state is all in all. Every thing is referred to the production of force; afterwards every thing is trusted to the use of it. It is military in it’s principle, in it’s maxims, in it’s spirit, and in all it’s movements. The state has dominion and conquest for it’s sole objects; dominion over minds by proselytism, over bodies by arms.”

    Burke was not arguing against the Modern Welfare State, for heaven’s sake.

  19. Increasingly, conservatism and liberalism are irrelevant labels we assign to avoid talking about underlying conflicts – notably…

    class warfare
    religious warfare
    generational warfare

    There is a very real concern on the right that federal policy is suppressing investment in so far as our debt is effectively committing future earnings to pay for existing obligations. I don’t think it’s “regulation”, but expectations of future tax increases hit two ways (share of profits, and reduction in AD).

    An interesting article


    92% of federal revenue expected to go to Medicare and Social Security in short order, but all our discussions are about the other part of the budget…

    This is true, in so far as the public sector has a claim on future earnings to pay for retirement, social security, and medicare obligations, and this claim comes out of the asset values of private retirement accounts (401ks) which are largely invested in the private sector value streams (stocks).

    Fundamentally, we need a re-balancing of future obligations – the right is 100% correct there. They fail in their methods. Notably, they deny the need for inflation to reduce debt load, they refuse to permit anything that whiffs of wealth redistribution, and they reject any hint that open trade economies harm the poor. Stupid, or evil genius? You decide.

  20. Re
    Nemo, 1st post
    Nemo – I don’t know if you listen to R Limbaugh or people like that, but hey talk constantly about how arrogant and powerful and insulting the democrat (sic) party is. Rush will denounce obama and democrat people in the most vile and obscene ways, then denounce the democrats for using uncivil language, and for saying mean things…
    I think this fits victimhood.
    Another rush trick is to do a story about someone vile, like a child molester, then seque into a story on Obama; rush has plausible deniability, but the link is clear to the listener.

    there is also a clear sense of victim hood in how they describe gov’t reg, obama care, etc; these are crushing burdens, shackling us to a socialist economy…

    I’m not sure I understand people like Palin and Santorum and Perry and their supporters; these people *cheered* when abolishing the EPA was proposed. I mean seriously, who is going to regulate the millions of gallons of highly toxic waste we generate each day ?
    So these people are really not thinking rationally; not that liberals are much better, but there really is something almost clinically psychotic about the right, if they think abolishing the EPA is a good idea.

    My personal diagnosis is that it is because the free market system has failed these people; for their whole lives they haveplayed by the rules, and instead of being rewarded, the country and their 401Ks are broke.
    When your belief systm fails you, you either become a counter revolutionary (none so stringent as a reformed drunk) or you double down on your beliefs, and look for enemies who betrayed you (the jews stabbed us in the back as Herr Hitler said).

    That is, if you have spent your life believing in the free market, you can’t criticize big biz for outsourcing jobs to china, or wall street for causing the recession; it has to be the fault of liberals.

    Thats my personal opinion, but I havn’t seen anyone who has gone out and tried to figure out what it is that these people think.

  21. I wrote the greatest post I’ve ever written on this site yesterday, and it didn’t most. It was a masterpiece and what really p*sses me off is, I wasn’t even drunk. Oh well, and least Kwak hasn’t trashed me yet, I guess that’s consoling in some twisted sense. I didn’t even get the “your comment is awaiting moderation” BS. I wonder what did it?? The slang term “woodie” sent an anomaly worm hole into the internet cosmos that sucked up my comment?? It was only like 8 paragraphs long with like 20 links. I’m not sure I can get p*ssed off enough to write that one again…… there’s no Gin fuel here.

  22. Didn’t post, I meant. See I can’t even spell without Gin. There’s no justice in this world.

  23. Too much evidence of *globalism* being out of control – here’s the biblical-style plague, u’all:


    The Men Who Stare At Goats managed to achieve for themselves the viagra, prozac, meditation combination inducing a zen-like self love state of mind that allows them to carefully, and without extreme emotion, examine, under their think tank microscopes, the *economic* benefits of being money-lenders on a planet with 7 billion people believing that they are in debt to them. USA was their crucible, their test drive of the *theories*. But unlike a real Vulcan, they didn’t ask if it was *logical*, socially….

    So who can blame ruthless war lords from the whole planet’s Eastern Civilization’s population cluster-f*k wanting to have the same economic FREEDOM in USA as all the other GLOBAL *chosen ones* who came before them? After all, they’ve been *meditating* forever in the East – even *praying*….and what a cornucopia of herbs, roots, berries and civet cat balls, etc. they have to traditionally medicate themselves into a *focused* state of bliss!? A mind FREE of thought….

    Told you that a monkey brain high on imagination does not REALLY like to *think*.

    same as it ever was…

    @Dude :-) who opined:

    “The destruction of the US economy is what they want, why the rich capital owners money is revalued through the roof while we are told to starve and die. Others like the Bushes want to do things differently, though in the end, it comes down to the same ending storyline.”

  24. The second comment here is to the point, I think. Rick Perry probably doesn’t have a clue who Edumuc Burke was. Joe Scarbourough referred to Burke a few weeks ago, on his early morning show. Joe, likewise, doesn’t seem the sort to read 18th century political philosophy except to affirm his prejudices. Modern Republican conservatism has no connection with the likes of Edmund Burke. This new “conservatism” is disjointed, disconnected.

  25. Wow…some very intelligent comments posted on this subject. I have wondered for years why the average voter is moved to vote against his own self interest. Now I have a framework to comprehend..I do think tho that a contributing factor might be the slowly eroding power of white America. As demographics inexorably reduce the share represented by “white” America there is a subtle understanding of this creeping into their consciousness causing them to revert to the party (the GOP) that will “conserve” their status….Poor fools they!!!

    PS: I am a white onlooking Brit.

  26. @Doug M – the races have been observing each other and trading with each other since the dawn of man. Race is a real part of the human species. Like everything else, because of its constant presence, it (race) is a force that builds civilizations and destroys them.

    We are not talking about a bona-fide *race* when we examine the same as it ever was *money-lenders* – we are talking about a cult. Huge difference. The *white man* has confidence in their *race*. When does every other *race* get focused on taking the fruits of peaceful, honest work from the white race? When they gather enough brute force. And why do they need to steal civilizations? Because they only have the skills of brute force. How long does a civilization last in their hands once they’ve stolen it? Only for one harvest cycle, even now because of the pressure of 7 billion….

    You think this “just the facts, ma’am” knowledge of what other races are up to is just creeping in to the white race consciousness? You’ve been watching too much TV.

    There is an over-representation of the faux-intellectual foot soldiers of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and Ayn Rand hooligans in the employ of the global cult of free maggot capitalism.

    White men do not insult each other from within like is being done from the pulpit of the Supreme Court and the Executive Branch…read the Protocols to see what they really think of the *white race* and who they *believe* THEY are. All the *evidence* they provide as their bona-fides is manufacturing by themselves.

  27. @Doug M

    Last sentence above should read, All the *evidence* they provide as their bona-fides is manufactured by themselves – they print their own diplomas based on passing their own curriculum and having the answers before the test.

    So let’s jump over to the “Can Europe Be Saved” article by Johnson and follow the psychedelics of the fractal conversation. If I were king for the day, the merciful thing to do is to put them all in an institution where they can continue to *believe* that their wars, theft, slavery, and environmental disasters (AKA *debt*) are patterned after the Mandelbrot fractal that shows the repeating patterns of gravity distribution throughout galaxies.

    “….In the beginning there was $$$$ and then came Life….”

    They’re nutz. It’s such a long story. However, their conversations with each other during the past decade are documented on certain websites. I’ve been reading along since 1991….which makes me qualified to *speak* nutz and also be a little crazy from the effort :-)

    As Per correctly diagnosed, the regulators of the nutz are stupid…we’ll have better care for them in the institution….

  28. James, so now we’re arguing, debating, the definition of American Conservatism. I grew up in this movement, having been born in 1946. I mean I grew up in the “old” American conservative world, you know, the one that elected Eisenhower, the one that thought that taxing the rich at 90% was just fine, the one that was settling into Social Security, etc. That philosophy was a part of the core of Americans who believed in the American Capitalism that was happening then, you know, the real Adam Smith stull, not the Friedman variety, where all entrepreneurs saw themselves as social shepherds, and not slave holders (at least most of those conservatives believed in a very old world aristrocratic merchant class characterized by obeyance of the ancient social contract. This is so old Europe. Now, even in the New World Europe, which most Americans tend to describe as substantially liberal and socialistic, simply is not seen that way be Europeans. But then, we Americans always paid more attention to definition than reality. No, in America, the new conservative movement is for slave-owner wannabes who want to be able to tell the government exactly how to stay out of their way, but not pay to have it do their dirty laundry, that is until most of their masses find that the government actually does a lot more than laundry for them, and what it does, unless they are a part of the movement elite, they simply can’t afford. For me, I like the old conservatism. It was noble. It did believe in the social contract. It did care about being shepherds. Quite honestly, most of those who run or subscribe to the New Conservatism, would like to see the rest of us dead. And, that’s the truth, since we are just a pain for being in their way.

  29. “Robin also highlights the importance of victimhood in conservatism, going back to Edmund Burke’s tears for Marie Antoinette.”

    Victimhood permeates all political movements, both on the left and right. The conservatives have always bemoaned the loss of the power of of the individual versus the state, the decline of the influence of religion, the decline of the American family and associated values. The liberal movements have championed civil rights and public welfare, all the while spotlighted the plight of individuals, families and groups of people under the status quo. Victimhood galvanizes the masses and is thus a useful tool; thus it isn’t solely a tool for the conservatives.

    I did enjoy the blog entry though James. Thanks!

  30. To James Kwak. I found your comments here interesting — however, I have a question for you regarding “definitions”. To define conservatism is fundamentally about radical change (going back to the mythical good old days) would seem to require that we understand that this is what the conservative movement is in all it varieties. It would also seem that the various political leaders of the movement were of the same mind set. The problem here is this idea of “mind set”, for a case can be made that we know a persons views, not by what they say but by what they do. Certainly, Thatcher and Reagan spoke in a “conservative voice”; but there is now much discussion about the fact that unlike what the Tea Party types say, these two figures were not all that radical regarding “rolling back the state” and, in fact, both look fairly liberal (progressive) in economic terms and in given the current crop of “conservatives” (true believers who are wedded to radical reactionary visions). (See Bruce Bartlett.) Thatcher and Reagan seemed to have been political realists — and despite their bluster, there is little evidence that either would be in sympathy with the likes of a Palin, a Bachmann, or a Perry.

    James, If I am correct (that we judge a persons politics by what they do and not by what they say), and if the behavior of Thatcher and Reagan gives no evidence that they had not only bought into the welfare state but also where responsible for its expansion and growth, then how can we but them into the revolutionary ‘back-to-the-future” camp which you high school friend would seem incline to do?

    One of note: you mention Nixon and his “silent majority” — but it is not clear to me Nixon was much of a “back-to-the-future” revolutionary, but rather by today’s standard, he would be a flaming liberal (of course a very flawed in terms of his political and ethical behavior and his paranoia.

  31. “I wrote the greatest post I’ve ever written on this site yesterday, and it didn’t [p]ost.” – Moses Herzog
    October 1, 2011 at 4:02 pm

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